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While some people may think domestic abusers harm only their partners and ex-partners, research reveals that children are always victims as well. Researcher Daniel Saunders called exposure to domestic abuse by fathers “a severe form of child abuse … with short and long-term consequences for boys and girls.” Despite robust research on this topic, courts often award domestic abusers sole or shared custody or extended unsupervised parenting time with their children. This happens because the laws in many states do not adequately prioritize children’s safety in determining a child’s best interest. Ignorance and bias also seem to color the decision-making of parental evaluators and judges.
Note: Though the most common domestic abuse situation is where the abuser is a man who has controlled and/or committed physical violence against his female partner, victims and victimizers can be of any gender.
Problems with Abusers as Parents
People who directly abuse their children and/or expose them to their abuse of others have questionable parental capacity, according to criminologist Samantha Jeffries. She reminds us that this danger can be even more acute during post-separation visitation, where abusers may have primary responsibility for their children for longer periods of time than was likely the case prior to parental separation.
Among the potential issues:
- Domestic abuse is a parenting choice that terrifies children. A man who allows himself to act in a violent or controlling way with the mother of his children is deliberately creating an environment of fear for his (ex)partner and children. Research shows that even after a marital separation, children pay careful attention to the abusive parent’s mood when they are with him, and are cautious about how they move, and what they say and do.
- Deficits in empathy. Evidence of domestic abuse portends poorly for the domestic abuser’s ability to be an empathic, loving, and supportive parent. Men who perpetrate coercive control domestic abuse generally lack the empathy needed to validate their children’s feelings, a quality that is extremely important for raising psychologically healthy, caring children.
- Narcissism, entitlement, and an inability/unwillingness to prioritize others’ needs. Young children require caretakers who will tune in to their many needs. Domestic abusers tend toward selfish and self-centered behavior. This often creates a role reversal, where children feel that it is their responsibility to meet the needs of and take care of the abusive parent, rather than being nurtured themselves.
- Poor role modeling. Children learn how to interact with others by observing how their family members do the same. Domestic abusers do not typically model kindness, empathy, cooperation or handling frustration calmly. Instead, domestic abusers model getting their needs met at all costs, perhaps contributing to the dramatically elevated likelihood that sons raised by domestic abusers will become intimate partner abusers themselves, and daughters will themselves be victimized in the future by men who act like their fathers.
- Rigid, authoritarian, and coercive parenting. According to a report by Claire Murphy and colleagues, “Men who use violence and coercive control against a female partner may have unrealistically high expectations of their children, expecting them to obey unquestioningly. Authoritarian fathers tend to aim for a ‘quick fix’ as opposed to having age-appropriate expectations and behavior management styles.” Domestic abusers tend to use harsh and rigid discipline with their children. This is particularly unfortunate with children who have already experienced the traumas of exposure to domestic abuse and therefore need “a nurturing, loving environment that includes appropriate structure, limits and predictability,” according to Jeffries.
- Manipulative and psychologically abusive tactics. Just as they have done with the women they have abused, male domestic abusers tend to verbally abuse and manipulate their children including criticizing, humiliating, lying, and making false promises.
- Domestic abusers use children to intimidate, track, and harass their mothers. Domestic abusers rely on children to carry confusing and even threatening messages to their mothers. Domestic abusers use children to track, intimidate, harass, and generally stay in the lives of their primary victims.
- Abusive fathers use parenting time to try to fracture the mother-child relationship. Abused mothers typically describe some kind of safe father-child contact as important to their children’s well-being, and they try to facilitate this, at least initially. Domestic abusers, on the other hand, often use parenting time to try to create distance between children and their mothers. Abusers often denigrate the children’s mother during visits, or even teach their children to lie about their mothers.
- Child maltreatment risk. The Murphy report also reveals that “Thirty-four percent of the children who had witnessed intimate partner violence had also been subjected to direct maltreatment in the past year, compared to nine percent of those who had not witnessed intimate partner violence. Over their lifetimes, over half of those (57 percent) who had witnessed intimate partner violence were also maltreated, compared to 11 percent of those who had not witnessed intimate partner violence.” People who have used physically abusive behavior with a partner—whether mild or severe, only once or frequently—have demonstrated their willingness to use physical force with loved ones, thus putting children at risk.
- Young children are especially vulnerable. Until they are about 10 years old, children are largely unable to flee, describe their experiences adequately, seek help independently or fully understand their experiences. At the same time, we know that young brains are highly influenced by traumatic and stressful events. Exposing young children to frightening situations and unstable individuals can leave them with lifelong deficits in their health and psychological functioning.
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Put simply: Young children deserve substantial protection from adults who have demonstrated that they are unwilling to care for and gently protect their loved ones. Caring parents who are trying to protect their children from a domestic abuser cannot achieve this goal alone. They need the help and understanding of guardians ad litem, parental evaluators, attorneys and the courts.
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